London Philharmonic/Osmo Vänska with Marc-André Hamelin – Balakirev, Khachaturian, Kalinnikov

Balakirev, orch. Casella
Islamey – Oriental Fantasy
Concerto in D flat for Piano and Orchestra, Op.38
Symphony No.1 in G minor

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Marc-André Hamelin. Photograph: Fran KaufmanYou engage Marc-André Hamelin and programme Balakirev’s finger-crunching Islamey, a challenge for even the greatest virtuoso pianist … but there are at least two orchestrations of it. Does the pianist or the orchestra open the concert? Well, you have the answer in the listing. Osmo Vänskä conducted the version transcribed in 1907 by Alfredo Casella, a kaleidoscopic affair, bubbly and buzzy, but over-scored and too busy, Western-European bright lights rather than the darker Orientalism that Balakirev plundered (the later adaptation by Lyapunov is preferable in this respect). This performance took a little while to settle, coming into its own – as does Casella’s arrangement – in the languorous middle section featuring a cor anglais and a string trio, and then went for an exhilarating final lap even if Casella’s undoubted brilliance submerges the original.

Beginning with a thump, Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto (1936) is garish, banal, exotic, folksy and bombastic. There’s not much you can do with this whimsically disconnected, tedious, thin brew of a work, stuffed with numerous cadenzas, than bring it off as well as it was here, while wishing the collective performing talent was engaged with something much more worthwhile. Marc-André Hamelin has memorised the solo part and he dished it out with nonchalance, technical wizardry and oodles of musicianship – one wonders why, but each to their own – and if the only engaging section is the opening of the slow movement where balmy nocturnal breezes are spurred into life by an oleaginous bass clarinet, with the flexatone – correction, we had instead the unclassifiable Musical Saw bowed to eerie effect. I suppose Hamelin could have produced more colour in his contribution, and had an instrument with a less pinging treble, but does it matter; I just want those 40 minutes back. He offered us an extra, Chopin’s Waltz, Opus 64/1, also in D flat – Just a Minute, a guest appearance from Nicholas Parsons? Hamelin’s rendition of what Chopin wrote was going so well – witty, sparkling and endearing – until he went and spoiled it all…!

Osmo Vänskä. Photograph: Todd BuchananThe LPO included Vasily Kalinnikov’s First Symphony in a November 2008 RFH concert with Neeme Järvi. Returning to it now was a joyous experience, for Vänskä – currently resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra (following an extended dispute with management over reduced-salary contract negotiations) yet in an ongoing ‘will he, won’t he?’ situation about returning as music director – led a glorious outing for this underrated gem. With his First Symphony (there’s a Second), the short-lived tuberculosis-claimed Kalinnikov (1866-1901) left us a delightful and delicious work, full of beauty and ingenuity, the first movement containing one of the loveliest of melodies, of ardour and bloom, shaped with the greatest of affection and largesse by Vänskä and the LPO. If listening blind, Borodin would come to mind, but Kalinnikov is his own man, both formally and restively within a traditional framework. One thinks of the cut, thrust and fugal feistiness of the first-movement development section, the crisp frosty opening, with succulent harmonies, to the suggestive slow movement, the robust scherzo offset by dulcet refrains, and the exuberant, bright-eyed finale that reminiscences back to the opening movement en route to a brassy and uplifting coda. Vänskä and the LPO, in their smart, dynamic and outgoing performance, surely made this assured and loveable piece many new friends. Maybe an LPO CD issue beckons?

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